I wrote this as part of my MA at De Montfort University about my novel Utrecht Snow. i was quite pleased with it as a piece of academic work as I do find the difference between academia and a straightforward writing piece quite difficult to guage. I do find sometimes that trying to be “academic” about crime fiction is taken too far and words and phrases are used in a pretentious way as if the genre needs protecting from the masses and is only for an elite few. Hey, ho. Here we go:

I never set out to write the British equivalent of the “Great American Novel”, but I did want to write as well as I possibly could and to be proud of my efforts.

In writing Utrecht Snow, I initially decided to write for myself about something I was interested in. A good start I thought to keep boredom at bay and to be as successful as I possibly could be. The result is not the “Great British Novel”. I know that and I can see the flaws in my work.

I wanted it to be a piece with a social conscience that reflected today and to some extent that is achieved, but by placing it in Utrecht I have had to understand a different perspective on life and have not gone as far as I had hoped.

By discussing the process of writing the novel I will highlight where my successes and failures are. I know I could do better. Is that an indictment of this work or an outright failure? The reasoning may be that by admitting it is not as it should be, that the finished article is not complete and needs further editing and I can perhaps accept that.

I will; start at the beginning. I chose Utrecht because it is different. A quiet central Dutch city of 330,000. A good number, but quiet and peaceful. Cobbled back streets are owned by cyclists and keep you on your toes. The main streets are wide with plentiful buses and few cars. Students at times seem to outnumber residents and it is a multi-cultural city with some of the problems that raise, but also a city that seems at peace with itself. It is a young city intent on improving itself and the Utrecht 2030 building programme is the way forward for its inhabitants. You never see the police about. Crime there seems incongruous. Murder and kidnap more so. We have a real conflict with the natural order. As Auden wrote, the writer needs to disrupt the natural ritual of a place:

“The corpse must shock not only because it is a corpse, but also for a corpse it is shockingly out of place…” [1]

My murder victim, Magda Haan is found dead, blood seeping out onto the snow, so we have many different views of the death. Innocence tarnished, white stained, a body in the middle of a park, a place of enjoyment now despoiled by murder. Perhaps I could have made more of this scene and the elements that went on around it. The search, the exclusion zone, more description, but I held off just giving a clear account of what there was.

“Magda Haan lay dead in Nordse Park. I got to the RV point on the outer ring and covered my shoes with blue disposables. I pulled on my gloves as I kept to the tack towards the inner ring. Police tape surrounded the crime scene. Danny lifted the tape and I made my way into the inner ring. An island of industry, surrounding the small sack like figure that was the victim. She had been stabbed, that much was clear as her dirty, stinky faux fur was soaked in blood, a dark liquid staining the white snow that was starting to cover her, her eyes just staring out at the sky. There was no red as you would have thought, no red on white like in the films, just a dark, dirty patch beneath her dark, dirty coat. A final extinction of her sad life, with her blood oozing out into the snow.” [2]

Hopefully that stark bare description works and highlights this break with ritual.

Utrecht is different. A city of students for three quarters of the year and a smaller population for the rest. It is a world apart from the bustle of Amsterdam or our cities in England. As crime writer David Hewson writes:

“The world is a vital component; one I need to establish before anything else. There’s a simple rule I apply to all my work: is it transferable? In other words, could I take the same characters and narrative and move them from, say, Rome to Vienna? If the answer’s yes, then something’s wrong.” [3]

I feel that my story can only be in Utrecht with the stoical Dutch characteristics that Caes Heda shows. No fiery hot blooded stereotyped Italian or dowdy middle European clichéd features for him. He is hardworking and supportive of his men and women, but also knows how to have fun. He recognises how the Dutch mentality works, how they go into the world with a large feeling of entitlement and he knows how to combat this. Hewson continues:

“A story world has to embrace everything in the book. Both the characters and the events they encounter need to be tied to the location where they take place. For that reason, I choose my canvas as carefully as I do my plots.” [4]

I did choose my location with care. It is slightly at odds with the dark noirish locations of ScandiCrime and the America of Spade and Marlowe. It does not have the grittiness of Ian Rankins Edinburgh, but it is ordinary and this highlights Auden’s thoughts again. I wanted to emphasise the ordinariness of Utrecht and of Caes Heda as well as the procedural work the police pursue. But no matter where a story is set, as Raymond Chandler wrote:

“Fiction in any form has always intended to be realistic. Old-fashioned novels which now seem stilted and artificial to the point of burlesque did not appear that way to the people who first read them.” [5]

I wrote in an earlier assignment about spending time at various locations in Utrecht to get a sense of place. I was able to smell and taste Utrecht at the Coffee Company café. I breathed in the life of the city at Oudegraacht and felt at ease in the city at the Flora Hof garden. Being in the city and writing in the city made all the difference to me and I was able to establish rapport with my characters.

I feel that my writing is up to date. That it is clearly set in the present. There are enough references to modern day life for this to be obvious, especially in the social lives the characters’ lead. Cross Fit, Exercise, Kick boxing, Music and fashions.

I hope it is not an overused trope, but the idea of Snow covering the city and emphasising the hidden innocence of the city is paramount to the text. When the murderer is caught, rain falls and clears away the snow, cleansing the city. I have not overplayed this or drawn attention to the fact, it is just mentioned in passing, but is important none the less. The covering of the snow holds everything in, isolating the city so that it seems to withdraw from the real world, shutting out everything that may try to get in. It mirrors the search for the kidnapped students, they too are hidden away and no one has any idea as to where they are. The murders are the same. All is hidden from view. Descriptions of Utrecht are seen through the snow, eyes sting from the snow fall, all is not what it seems. Elmore Leonard writes:

“Never open a book with weather. If it’s only to create atmosphere, and not a character’s reaction to the weather, you don’t want to go on too long.” [6]

So I appear to have broken one of his rules for writing as weather, snow in particular, dominates my tale.

I have written mostly in the first person. Caes Heda is my lead protagonist. Other parts are in the third person. Frances Brody in her Kate Shackleton mysteries uses the same technique. Kate takes the lead, telling us in the first person her story. We are then given background information in the third person where Brody provides us with an insight into various characters and events. I wanted to have a first person viewpoint for my lead character and Caes speaks directly to the audience allowing them to feel the emotions he has with more immediacy. That is the way I want to portray him in my story so don’t actually see why I need to justify this. The reader will of course make the final decision. Caes Heda is not a narrator, he is a player in the story, but we can take his view as his truth and see the world of the novel through his eyes.  He is telling us the story and I wanted it to come from him. He is not ‘all seeing’ and that is why I have passages in the third person describing events he does not see. I feel this adds to the narrative. I hope I echo Phillip Marlowe who is, according to Lee Horsley:

“…essentially good and honourable, he provides the reader with a stable, trustworthy perspective.” [7]

Just as Caes Heda and Thijs Ormans are essentially good and honourable people, despite the earlier flaws of the latter, they can also be trusted. Well, Caes doesn’t totally trust Thijs, but he has his reasons. The reader has no reason to disbelieve either character especially as Truus seems to have confidence in her boss and she seems to have her head screwed on the right way!

Continuing with the idea of craft, is how I approach the story. A great deal of my novel is taken up by dialogue. As John Dale writes:

“Dialogue moves a story forward, it communicates information to the reader, it reveals character and establishes relationships between characters. Dialogue should do many things all at once. It should never be predictable; it should rarely answer a question directly; it should be cryptic and build tension; it should keep the narrative on track; it should never tell the reader what they already know.” [8]

In my case I feel this has been successful. Of course the reader learns new things, that is the nature of a tale. Relationships are forged through speaking too each other finding out what the characters are about and how they interact. This would not be successful with an inner monologue or plain descriptive writing. We can only discover a character by how they act and comport themselves in society. I hope my efforts achieve this.

The dialogue is straightforward with no hidden meanings. The characters say what they mean and conversation flows. I have used colloquialisms in some cases and native Dutch words in others:

“I feel common French words should be sprinkled in the text to add flavor and that feeling of being in Paris. Not too heavy but with a light touch. Words to add authenticity.”  [9]

It is a judgement as to how many Dutch words or phrases to use. One of my critical readers thought I had too many, another really liked them. I use endearments like mammie, pappy, vader, oké and lief, liefje or lieveling. I feel it gives some authenticity to the narrative.

Stephen King is quick to point out the importance of reading when finessing the writer’s skills.

“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.” [10]

It is the art of reading that has led my writing. I have stated elsewhere in this assignment that my lack of academic background is counter balanced by the amount of reading I have done. I have absorbed almost by osmosis the techniques needed to be a writer and how narrative structure and plot should develop. King continues:

“You have to read widely, constantly refining (and redefining) your own work as you do so. It’s hard for me to believe that people who read very little (or not at all in some cases) should presume to write and expect people to like what they have written, but I know it’s true.” [11]

Narrative Structure is obviously important to any novel. I feel there is a solid structure to mine. In Utrecht Snow there are several of the components of the journey as outlined by several writers. Having come into the Masters programme without an academic background in Creative Writing, it has been a matter of catch up for me with several components of the art. It is interesting to see that I have unwittingly taken on so many or perhaps absorbed them over a time without thinking and without knowing explicitly which terms mean what.

It is instructive to read about Joseph Campbell and his description of the “Hero’s Journey”.[12] Christopher Vogler explains his outline and it is good template for how we can approach a crime novel, but do we need to follow all his tenets? I don’t think so. As a police officer the character does not have the professional option to “refuse the call” [13] he may or may not engage with a mentor, but he will “cross the threshold” [14] once he undertakes the case. But in real life as in fiction that is not always his call. They come as orders for him or his department.

The problems any detective has with a case are highlighted in the “ordeal” [15] of the journey, and we don’t always see the “reward” [16] at this stage. Indeed, if we did have a payoff now surely it would be the end of the novel. If it is a question of a sudden realisation of the guilt of a party that then falls apart due to lack of evidence so be it. In my novel they think they have cracked then case after a random attack on a woman in Steenwerg, only to find it was a one off and so we see the hero, Caes Heda, on “the road back” [17]

My writing was not directly influenced by Campbell or Voglers interpretation of the journey, but fits the template because I suppose it resonated through the hundreds of crime novels I have read and the nuances I have subconsciously taken on board. “the resurrection” [18] where our hero is tested by the disappearance of his daughter and the end game or as Campbell calls it “the return with the elixir” [19]

William Labov outlines another interpretation of the narrative structure a novel could take. To paraphrase Labov, his template is:

“Abstract – How does it begin?
Orientation – Who/what does it involve, and when/where?
Complicating Action – Then what happened?
Resolution – What finally happened?
Evaluation – So what?
Coda – What does it all mean?” [20]

This all seems straightforward and one can see this pattern in Utrecht Snow. The coda is important as it is the end point when the writer:

“ … returns the time of reference to the present time of the conversation, obviating any further implementation of ‘what happened?’ “ [21]

Or closure as we could call it. We don’t want the reader to be left hanging, or do we?

There has to be a narrative structure and in Utrecht Snow, mine is quite a simple one. It demonstrates both the work of Campbell and Labov, but not blindly. Campbell just put down on paper what people had been doing in a novel since writing began, but he was the first to do it so kudos to him.

Dan Harmon, a comedy writer, who led Community in its formative years is another who has looked at narrative structure and he is much more down to earth. He pays homage to Campbell of course, but his earthier interpretation of ‘The Hero with a Thousand Faces’, argued that all great stories and myths share common elements (“the monomyth”). Harmon is a lot easier to follow, however. He feels that storytelling comes naturally to humans, but since we live in an unnatural world, we sometimes need a little help doing what we’d naturally do. So his format is:

“A character is in a zone of comfort, but they want something. They enter an unfamiliar situation, adapt to it, get what they wanted, pay a heavy price for it, then return to their familiar situation, having changed.” [22]

You can see in the table below that I have outlined my story with the features of the various templates. Again I have to say that this was not done in a conscious manner other than I suppose my experience of crime fiction reading. I did not set out to write a heroes’ journey, but it falls into place when set against the templates.

 

 

Campbell Labov Harmon Utrecht Snow
The ordinary world Abstract Zone of comfort UTRECHT COVERED IN SNOW
The call to adventure Orientation Character wants something CRIME WOMEN KIDNAPPED

 

Refusal of the call  

 

 

Meeting with the mentor Enter an unfamiliar situation  

 

 

Crossing the threshold INVESTIGATION

 

 

Tests, Allies and Enemies Adapt to it PAINSTAKING PROCEDURE

 

Approach  

 

 

The Ordeal Complicating Action FURTHER CRIMES

MURDERS

 

The Reward Resolution Get what they wanted BREAKTHROUGHS

 

 

The Road Back  

 

Pay a heavy price for it DAUGHTER KIDNAPPED

 

The Resurrection Evaluation Return to their familiar situation DAUGHTER SAFE.

 

 

Return with the Elixir Coda Having changed CRIME SOLVED

SNOW MELTS

 

I set the scene, outline the crime, start the search, meet problems, complications and brick walls before the crime is solved. What I don’t have is a lot of clues and suspects as I wanted the story to show what happens in real life. We do not get faced with red herrings and endless suspicious looking villains. We have to struggle to achieve success. Often meeting lots of failure on the way. Success does come in the end as that is what we all want to achieve. Closure. I have closure and a settlement at the end and an optimistic future is heralded.

I want the story to be the first of a series and have since developed further ideas and look forward to writing them. I like my characters and I like the city of Utrecht. I feel comfortable writing about them. I’m not sure if I am meant to, but there we go!

Finally, the ethics and aesthetics of my novel are key. Gill Plain talks about the detective as:

“… a leper, harbouring heretical ideas that might be passed on to other less cynical officers…” [23]

In this case she is talking specifically about Ian Rankins’ Rebus, but I feel she seems to want to confer the whole hard boiled genre with this. I cannot agree. Just as we don’t need to have a flawed genius in the lead role of a detective novel, we don’t need to see their cynicism infect others. It does happen in real life granted, but we also see honourable men and women seemingly uncontaminated by their surroundings and able to lead a positive life that does not involve taking in the hard boiled anti-establishment cloak. I like to see Caes Heda and his team in this version. Granted in Utrecht Snow Maaike Meijer feels the system is letting her down and she wants to do something about it, but she does not become a vigilante loner, fighting crime in the recesses of society.

Thus as Robin Winks wrote in the eighties:

“Detective fiction thus becomes a mirror to society. Through it we may see society’s fears made most explicit; for some, those fears are exorcised by the fiction.”[24]

I wrote in an earlier assignment that I have a very fixed moral compass. Ethically, I understand the difference between right and wrong. I am usually very black and white in my views; I see the correct way to do something so follow it all the way. I believe though the law may sometimes be obtuse, we should still follow it, as without the rule of law we have chaos. I believe in love and fidelity. I want to help my fellow man and don’t think we should do anything that offends or upsets anyone else. I believe that freedom is a right, freedom of speech, freedom of action as long as we do not hurt someone else. The maxim:

“So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” [25]

is I suppose my key ethical core value. So I am quite clear on what I view in society and of what I approve and disapprove. It is difficult at times and does cause arguments, but I do know what I know. I suppose I have an “old fashioned” view of life.

All writing, according to Robert Eaglestone;

“…cannot avoid being about ethics.” [26]

As a writer I realise you have to reflect the real world. No matter how distasteful you may find it. But as a writer we are creating a different world that our characters inhabit. In fact, I think it has to be different to allow the reader to escape into. Reading is a way of escaping the real world so if we can describe something slightly off kilter we may attract readers. The story can reflect the real world, but it will never be the same world that we live in. It is in the authors’ imagination and will have to go through the readers’ response to see how the reader adapt to that new place. So story lines have to be followed that perhaps go against personal ethics. Our lead character could be a serial killer and we may be asking the reader to empathise if not sympathise with them. Now the real world might not be too pleasant a place at times and we can say that we write to escape it, but if our writing is to reflect the real world there is no escape. We may have to take on board ideas and themes that we are not happy about, child killing, incest or rape, but they make the plot line work, they are appropriate themes for the novel. These issues challenge the ethical values of the writer.

So what have I learnt during the time of my MA. One thing for sure is that writing is not as simple as I first thought. I have a long way to go before I can call myself an author. My first completed novel, though something I am proud of, could and should be better. I realise that having spent three years so far on its creation I could still spend more, but for the purpose of the MA I am presenting it now, flaws and all.

Having read so many crime novels I know what I am aspiring towards and it is a heady place. I know what I want to write, but have not quite achieved it. A writer should want to make a difference and I am one of those who does have a social conscience and wanted to reflect that in my writing. again I feel I have just fallen short of that aim.

I know my story is readable, but perhaps not compelling. It does tell a tale and does follow orthodox writing templates. This though was not through design, but as I stated earlier, through osmosis. As a first effort am I happy? Yes, I think so. I could as an endplate perhaps state could do better, but there again I am sure that after every novel is complete a writer should want to improve upon it the next time.

I can only hope that people want to read my work, and will then want to read more. Only then will I know that I have been a success.

 

[1] The Guilty Vicarage Notes on the detective story, by an addict by W.H. Auden http://harpers.org/archive/1948/05/the-guilty-vicarage/ Accessed 11/10/14

[2] Utrecht Snow p159

[3] http://davidhewson.com/amsterdam/amsterdam-of-pieter-vos/ accessed 26/2/2016

[4] http://davidhewson.com/amsterdam/amsterdam-of-pieter-vos/ accessed 26/2/2016

[5] Raymond Chandler, “The Simple Art of Murder” 1950 http://www.en.utexas.edu/amlit/amlitprivate/scans/chandlerart.html accessed 17/4/2015

[6] Elmore Leonard’s rules for writers. www.theguardian.com/books/2010/feb/24/elmore-leonard-rules-for-writers accessed 27/2/2016

[7] Lee Horsley. Twentieth-Century Crime Fiction. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2005. p.85

[8] John Dale. The Handbook of Creative Writing. Edited by Steven Earnshaw p128

[9] Interview with Cara Black, author of Murder in Passy, an Aimée Leduc mystery – Laurel Zuckerman’s Paris Weblog Accessed 24/11/14

[10] Stephen King, On Writing. p164

[11] Stephen King, On Writing. p167

[12] Christopher Vogler. The Writers Journey. p14

[13] Christopher Vogler. The Writers Journey. p17

[14] Christopher Vogler. The Writers Journey. p18

[15] Christopher Vogler. The Writers Journey. p21

[16] Christopher Vogler. The Writers Journey. p22

[17] Christopher Vogler. The Writers Journey. p23

[18] Christopher Vogler. The Writers Journey. p24

[19] Christopher Vogler. The Writers Journey. p25

[20] William Labov. The Language of Life and Death. p10

[21] William Labov. The Language of Life and Death. p10

[22] Dan Harmon. Story Structure 101: http://channel101.wikia.com/wiki/Story_Structure_101:_Super_Basic_Shit

[23] Gill Plain ‘The Purest Literature We Have’ to ‘A Spirit Grown Corrupt’: Embracing Contamination in Twentieth-Century Crime Fiction. Critical Survey, Volume 20, Number 1 Spring 2008.

[24] Winks, Robin W. “Introduction” in Detective Fiction: A Collection of Critical Essays ed. Robin W. Winks Woodstock: Foul Play Press p7

[25] Matthew 7:12 New International Version

[26] Ethical Criticism p30 Robert Eaglestone Edinburgh University Press 1997